Goldman Sachs founder Marcus Goldman

Keep an eye on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s case against Goldman Sachs. It’s hard to imagine a less sympathetic defendant than Goldman. That may be the problem, because evidence is already emerging to suggest regulators are concocting violations in order to punish sleazy but legal behavior.

In today’s New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum offers a useful analysis of the SEC’s civil suit against Goldman, which stands accused of defrauding investors. The story quotes experts who point out that those investors were fully informed about what they were buying. The only thing investors didn’t know was that a hedge-fund manager named John Paulson helped pick what went into the investment vehicles and then bet they would lose money, to the great benefit, as it turned out, of Goldman’s shareholders. [Note: The previous sentence has been corrected since this item was first posted.]

Elsewhere in the Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin asks, “Why was Goldman, or any regulated bank, allowed to create and sell a product like the synthetic collateralized debt obligation at the center of this case?” The key word in that sentence may be “allowed.”

The Goldman case seems similar to one investigated recently by ProPublica and the NPR program “This American Life” involving Magnetar, a hedge fund that created collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that it then bet against. Magnetar has been accused of deliberately making those CDOs as risky as possible and then shorting them, running up many tens of millions in profits when they failed. (Magnetar denied the accusation.)

According to the report, Magnetar’s dealings may have single-handedly extended the housing bubble for at least a year, making the subsequent crash much deeper than it otherwise would have been. Yet not only has there been no hint that there was anything illegal going on, but Magnetar itself is still in business.

(And by the way, if you haven’t heard the report, you should download the podcast. It is a rare model of clarity about an exceedingly murky subject. You will come away, as I did, actually knowing something about what CDOs are and why they were so harmful to the economy.)

Although the charges Goldman faces are civil rather than criminal, the story calls to mind my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate’s book “Three Felonies a Day,” which details the expansive reach of federal prosecutors who use vague laws (“conspiracy” is a favorite) in order to punish people and corporations they have targeted.

The news media ought to follow Appelbaum’s lead and be on alert against getting spun by tales of wrongdoing at Goldman. The real outrage may prove to be not what’s illegal but what’s legal. Perhaps a better story is whether the massive financial-regulation bill now being considered by Congress would outlaw the sort of behavior that made Goldman and Magnetar clients even richer than they already were — while leaving the economy in ruins.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.